Rob Walker – The Guardian
The rollicking song about the souring of the 60s has now spawned a film, a musical and a children’s book. Its creator talks about its meaning – and reveals the family deaths underlying it
‘You couldn’t talk about my sister because you couldn’t tell the truth’ … Don McLean in the 1970s. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
When Don McLean was 15 years old, he had a premonition that his father was going to die. Distraught, he ran to tell his grandmother. “Don’t be ridiculous, Donny, why would you say such a thing?” she said. “Because it’s going to happen,” the boy replied. A few days later, his father dropped dead right in front of him. “I saw how he looked,” says McLean. “He’d turned green. I didn’t know what I was going to do without him. He was the king, the boss. He knew everything.”
The singer-songwriter behind the 1971 classic American Pie is speaking from his home in Palm Desert, a town in California where he is now well into what he calls the “desert phase” of his life. Wildfires are still burning across the state. You can’t see the sun for the acrid smoke. “I’m feeling it in my lungs,” says the 75-year-old.
So what did he do when his father died? “I cried for two years,” he says. “I blamed myself.” We’ve been talking about death for half an hour – his father’s and his feelings about his own. “I’m nearing the end of the high-dive,” he says. “Know what I mean?” It’s the big McLean theme running through his songwriting, from American Pie to the virtually unknown Run Diana Run, a weird musical dirge about Princess Diana.
We’re meeting, though, to talk about his era-spanning epic: that rollicking eight-and-a-half minute run-through of the 1960s after the decade closed. The Recording Industry Association of America has the song in its top five, behind Over the Rainbow and White Christmas; it’s been covered by everyone from Madonna to Tyson Fury, who sang it after knocking out Deontay Wilder earlier this year; and the original handwritten lyrics sold in 2015 for $1.2m (£800,000), the third highest auction price ever for an American literary manuscript.
McLean wrote it half a century ago, at the age of 24 – and to mark the anniversary, a new documentary, inevitably titled The Day the Music Died, will be released. A Broadway show is planned for 2022, and even a children’s book. That’s a lot of fuss for one song: McLean’s moment, perhaps, to tell the world once and for all what the lyrics actually mean.
There’s general agreement that the song is about the cultural and political decline of the US in the 1960s, a farewell to the American dream after the assassination of President Kennedy. “Bye bye Miss American Pie,” he sings. “Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.” But McLean has always kept stumm about the allusions in his verses. “Carly Simon’s still being coy about who You’re So Vain was written about,” he says. “So who cares, who gives a fuck?”
Plenty do. Every line of American Pie has been stripped bare. There are fan websites dedicated entirely to decoding it. Who was the jester who sang for the king and queen in a coat he borrowed from James Dean? What exactly was revealed the day the music died? The Vietnam war, social revolution, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, JFK, Mick Jagger, Martin Luther King, Charles Manson, Hells Angels, The Beatles, hallucinogenic drugs, God, the Devil – they’re all in there, aren’t they? No one can be totally sure, except one man.
For McLean, though, the genius of the song is in its structure, not its words: a perfect fusion, he says, of folk, rock’n’roll and old-fashioned popular music. The slow intro is the pop part, but then the piano kicks in and the tempo speeds into the chorus – that’s the rock’n’roll bit. The folk component is in the verse-chorus-verse composition. “I’ve never said that to anybody in 50 years,” says McLean.
Hmm, I say, that’s not really the scoop I was looking for. But then there’s no point asking McLean direct questions about what the song means: he’s too well practised at flicking them off. “It means I’ll never have to work again,” he used to quip.
Instead, our conversation drifts back to his childhood, before the death of his father – to what he calls the “dreadful, ugly secret” of his sister Betty Anne. Fifteen years his senior, she was an alcoholic, a drug addict, and a bum who ruined his childhood, he says. “You couldn’t talk about her because you couldn’t tell the truth about what was happening to her. It was a disaster to see it. She was always so shackled. It was terrible.”
She would straighten herself out, leave home, but then come back in a mess, he says. “It happened over and over.” He gets upset just talking about it. “That’s why I’m a blue guy I guess.” He sighs. “All my stuff is about loss – and a certain kind of psychic pain. I’ve never really been happy.”
For all its catchy sing-along jauntiness, there’s little to really cheer about in American Pie. It’s devoid of hope. McLean did come up with a more upbeat verse where the music gets “reborn” at the end. But he ditched it. “Things weren’t going that way,” he says. “I didn’t see America improving intellectually or politically. It was going steadily downhill, and so was the music.”
He takes me back in time again – to the innocent days, supposedly, of the 1950s that American Pie is lamenting. But McLean hated growing up in what he describes as a small house in an upper middle class neighbourhood of New Rochelle, in New York. People discriminated about everything, he says. “If you didn’t drive the right car, if you didn’t have enough money, if you didn’t wear the right shoes. I hated those fuckers.”
He’s burdened by the pain and grief of his childhood, even now. The opening of American Pie is largely accepted as mourning Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash in 1959. Holly was McLean’s musical idol as a kid, but could that verse equally be about his father? “You’ve hit the nail on the head,” he says. “I mean, that’s exactly right. That’s why I don’t like talking about the lyrics because I wanted to capture and say something that was almost unspeakable. It’s indescribable.” He adds: “American Pie is a biographical song.”
The cultural allusions are, he continues, his own in-jokes, poking fun at some of the big acts of the day. “Just the idea of choosing names that people could identify with: different artists, what they were doing, what they’d done. I was making fun of it all.”
The jester in the song is widely assumed to be Bob Dylan, stealing the limelight from Elvis Presley as the new messiah: “And while the king was looking down / The jester stole his thorny crown.” Dylan himself seemed to take umbrage with the association. “Yeah, American Pie, what a song that is,” he said in a rare interview in 2017. “A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, It’s Alright, Ma – some jester. I have to think he’s talking about somebody else. Ask him.”
So I ask him. “I can’t tell you,” says McLean. “But he would make a damn good jester, wouldn’t he?” He tells me Dylan’s son Jacob asked him the same question, but he didn’t tell him either.
McLean likes to be in charge. He admits that. It’s why he’s planning to put most of his possessions up for auction before he dies: song lyrics, guns, saddles, hunting knives, banjos, guitars, custom-made boots, his car. It’s part, he says, of a cleansing process: “I don’t want to leave it to someone else to figure out what to do with this stuff.”
Perhaps unravelling the mystery of American Pie would mean losing control of that too. “I always have to know where I’m headed,” says McLean, who doesn’t trust the media to give him a fair hearing and claims rarely to read anything that’s been written about him. “Don’t read good things and don’t read bad things,” he says, “because it’s all a bunch of bullshit.”
This seems as good a moment as any to ask McLean how he dealt with the situation when he was arrested and charged after his ex-wife accused him of domestic abuse. (McLean pleaded guilty and paid a fine, though his lawyer said this was “not because he was in fact guilty of anything, but to provide closure for his family and keep the whole process as private as possible”.)
“I can truly say that my ex-wife is the worst person I ever knew,” he says. “There’s nobody who compares.” Patrisha McLean, who he divorced in 2016, has talked about their relationship in a travelling exhibit about domestic violence called Finding Our Voices, and has established a non-profit of the same name. He says it took four years for the breakup to sink in. “All these love letters that she sent me every month for 30 years – they immediately turned to salt.”
Before we close, McLean offers me this reflection, about a painting by Thomas B Allen hanging in the living room of the country mansion he has in Maine. It captures Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe as they were in the film The Misfits: they’re all being photographed but their faces look like they’re being shot, assassinated even.
That’s how he feels, he says, thanks to the legacy of American Pie. “Writing a song that everyone on Earth knows shouldn’t make you resentful,” he says. “But you better have a lot inside you – because it’s gonna get sucked out.”
- The Day the Music Died film and the children’s book American Pie are out next year. The musical will follow in 2022.
- This article was amended on 22 October 2020 to remove a reference that said New Rochelle was in upstate New York.